Is There Such A Thing As Fair Trade Diamonds?

by Nicola Temple on March 16, 2012

Consumers that are concerned about buying ethical jewelry, may be wondering whether there is such a thing as Fair Trade certified diamonds. After all, we see the Fair Trade label on our produce, coffee, chocolate and even flowers, but what about our jewelry?

Right now, neither Fair Trade USA nor the Fair Trade Foundation in the UK have certified diamond producers or products. However, in 2008, Fair Trade USA did conduct a feasibility study that looked at the potential for developing a Fair Trade Diamond certification and standard.

The study suggested that there was a market for Fair Trade diamonds and helped identify micro-scale operators and local small-scale miners that had the greatest potential for certification. But, there were also some challenges that would need to be addressed in order to make it a reality.

The challenges of certifying diamonds as Fair Trade

First and foremost, the difference between certifying diamonds as Fair Trade rather than bananas or coffee is that people don’t buy diamonds daily, or even weekly (well, nobody in my social circles does anyway). So, building a market for Fair Trade diamonds has to be approached from a different angle than agricultural products.

fair trade diamonds

The concept of fair trade diamonds remains in its infancy, yet there are many people both within and external to the industry that are trying to create certification standards. CC image courtesy of Andrew Magill on Flickr.

Also, diamonds are a very high value item that is difficult to obtain, so this in itself creates a few other challenges inherent with the product:

1 – Diamonds are small and expensive. This means they are easy to conceal and that the benefits of illegal concealment can outweigh the costs of getting caught. As a result, it is likely that Fair Trade certification would require a far bigger on-the-ground presence than with most other products.

2 – Cost of production needs to be kept competitive. Diamonds are already an expensive product. If the cost of producing Fair Trade diamonds makes them far more expensive than non-certified diamonds, they simply won’t be competitive in the market and the process will fall apart without consumer and producer support.

3 – There needs to be an adequate quality and supply for producers.  This means that there needs to be a number of mining operations that are able to comply with Fair Trade certification standards reasonably quickly.

4 – Finding appropriate sources may be challenging. The model for other Fair Trade certified products is to work with local cooperatives and small-scale operators as it means there are fewer steps between the product and the consumer, which means there is a greater likelihood of the Fair Trade premium going to better the community. With diamonds, this means working with micro-scale operators and local small-scale miners, who are for the most part disorganized individuals and groups.

However, there are challenges associated with all certification programs and luckily there are lots of people working to overcome these challenges.

Progress being made toward Fair Trade certification of diamonds

One of these people is Martin Rapaport, one of the world’s leading advocates for Fair Trade diamonds. Rapaport was one of the people behind the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which was brought about to help eliminate the trade in conflict diamonds. As a result of the Kimberley Process, it is believed that new conflict diamonds now comprise less than 1% of diamonds in the marketplace.

In August 2011, the Rapaport Group announced a new certification scheme for ethical diamonds. Essentially, the system would track the production chain of the diamond, from the source to the finished jewelry. Those diamonds that provided economic benefits to artisanal miners and were in accordance with Fair Trade principles would receive the highest ethical grade. Recycled diamonds would receive the next highest grade in the scheme. Finally, ethical diamonds from known sources using ethical mining, production, and environmental standards would receive the basic ethical rating.

The Fair Trade principles are:

  • fair wages for the workers,
  • community benefits through Fair Trade premiums,
  • do no harm – to the environment or the people, and
  • monitoring and branding to ensure the label can be trusted.

Here’s a great video clip of Martin Rapaport speaking about what he’s clearly very passionate about:

One of the things I found interesting about Rapaport’s take on things is that he is certainly not an advocate of abstinence. You see, for me, my automatic reaction to the topic of ‘blood diamonds’ or other unethical products is to simply avoid them. This is a fairly easy stance when it comes to diamonds and a freelance writer’s salary. However, Rapaport makes a good point. The people in places like Sierra Leone that are up to their knees in mud digging for diamonds need jobs. They need to support their families. So what happens to them if the diamond consumers cut them off? Isn’t it a better approach to try and change the conditions in which they work? Make sure they are getting a decent cut and that their communities are also benefitting?  In other words, use your spending power to help make a difference.

So, it seems as though fair trade diamonds are in their infancy. You aren’t likely to see a diamond ring with a Fair Trade certification label on it anytime soon, but there are many groups that are working on making the ethical supply of diamonds a reality. In the meantime, ask your retailer about their supply chain, such as where are the diamonds sourced and is there recycled content in the jewelry metals? If your retailer doesn’t know or if you don’t feel good about their answer, find a retailer that does know and that is interested in the ethical supply of jewelry, then recommend them to your friends, or let us know about them here on EcoVillageGreen with your comments!

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